This region is increasingly one of the most popular in Europe. Its blend of ancient histories and antiquities -- along with more laid-back treasures, such as beaches and villages -- offers a fantastic array of holiday options. . It's the kind of getaway that can appeal to almost everyone in a diverse group, from kids (who will love donkey rides in Santorini) to history buffs (who will go on and on about their stops in Ephesus).
The cornerstone ports for most Eastern Mediterranean voyages are the cities of Athens (served by the port of Piraeus), Venice and Istanbul. In other instances, cruise lines mix a bit of the Western Mediterranean with the Eastern and may start or end voyages in Rome (served by Civitavecchia), Barcelona or Genoa.
Who Goes There?
When sailing the Eastern Mediterranean, cruisers are spoiled for choice. Big ships tend to visit big ports -- the "greatest hits" of the Eastern Mediterranean destinations, such as Venice, Athens and Istanbul. Almost all major lines offer such sailings, including Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, Royal Caribbean and Disney.
For a more European feel, consider cruising the region with a company based on the continent. Costa and MSC Cruises, both headquartered in Italy, offer shorter and often cheaper itineraries (as well as great pasta). British lines P&O, Thomson and Cunard have numerous sailings, while the German line Hapag-Lloyd provides the ultimate in luxury. Based in Athens, Celestyal Cruises offers both short and long cruises around the Med and Variety has yacht-style sailings to small Greek islands that aren't served by larger ships, and Noble Caledonia bases its expedition-style Island Sky in the region.
Luxury vessels also ply this region of the Med, including Regent Seven Seas, Azamara, Crystal, Silversea, Oceania and Seabourn. Often, these voyages not only visit smaller ports like Hvar, Split, Mykonos, Santorini and Cyprus, but they're longer in duration, also traveling to the Western Mediterranean.
The expedition ships that visit this well-trafficked region tend to be those that are heavy on culture, such as Travel Dynamics, Voyages of Discovery and Voyages to Antiquity. Those in search of something different can opt for a yacht-style experience (SeaDream Yacht Club, Windstar and Paul Gauguin) or all-masted ships like Lindblad's Sea Cloud or the ships found in Star Clippers' fleet. Primarily known for its river offerings, Grand Circle also has small ships that it uses on the Dalmatian Coast, as well as in Greece and Turkey.
Choosing an Itinerary
Most itineraries offer a combination of history, culture and beaches, making it easy to cater to a variety of interests and the amount of vacation time you have; you'll find anything from six- and seven-night cruises to leisurely affairs of 20 nights or more. However, some lines and itineraries are more focused on history and culture, visiting places like Venice, Athens, Katakolon (for Olympia), Istanbul, Dubrovnik and even down into Israeli ports that include Haifa and Ashdod (the closest to Jerusalem). Other itineraries might focus more on beaches, water sports and the classic Eastern Mediterranean love affair with fun and sun. Look for itineraries that are heavy on the Greek Isles, Crete and Cypress.
Adriatic Sea/Dalmatian Coast. Generally embarking in Venice, an Adriatic cruise almost always stops in Dubrovnik, with calls on the Italian port towns of Bari and Ravenna, or even more exotic Eastern Med ports like Kotor, Montenegro, or Neum, Bosnia. Shorter versions of these cruises head back to Venice, while longer iterations either continue on to Greece and Turkey (particularly popular for Greece's Gythion and Katakolon, home to the original Olympic games) or travel around Italy's boot, stopping in Sicily or Naples before debarking in Rome, Marseilles or Barcelona.
Black Sea. Usually departing from Istanbul or Athens, a cruise to the Black Sea combines stops on the Turkish coast with visits to Crimea (Yalta, Odessa, Sevastopol) and Russia (Sochi, home to the 2014 Winter Olympics). Occasionally, stops in Bulgaria and Romania are also included. For more information, see our Black Sea Basics article.
Greek Isles. There's no easier way to see the Greek Islands than from a cruise ship; you can avoid sold-out hotels and complicated ferry timetables (although the crowds will still be there if you drop anchor in the heat of summer). Usually embarking from Athens or Istanbul, almost all Greek Islands cruises stop in major ports, such as Santorini, Mykonos and Corfu. Kusadasi, Turkey, home of the ancient city of Ephesus, is also usually included. Longer journeys and smaller ships give passengers more islands like Rhodes, Naxos and Patmos.
Holy Land. Some Eastern Med itineraries dip down into Israel to stop at Haifa or Ashdod, both of which give passengers access to Jerusalem. (Two and three-night stays are common.) While these itineraries used to make stops in Alexandria, Egypt has been iffy since Arab Spring. Stops in Cyprus -- either Limassol or Paphos -- are also common. Embarkation is usually in Athens or Istanbul.
Best Time to Go
Generally speaking, most Eastern Mediterranean cruises set sail from spring through fall, with the summer high season hosting the largest number of sailings and people. (Prices are also generally higher, due to demand.) Summer's the time, as well, when the region gets hot, hot, hot. Spring and fall offer lower temperatures, better prices and fewer crowds.
Winter cruising in the Mediterranean has become more popular, particularly on European lines like MSC and Costa, because sunny skies predominate, and temperatures are moderate, ranging from the 50s to 70s instead of the 80s and higher. You won't have to jostle with peak-season crowds, cruise lines feature longer itineraries with more leisurely schedules, and prices offer more value for your money.
Athens. The Grecian capital city was the epicenter of the world's art and culture scene in the 4th and 5th centuries B.C., and much of its rich history is still on display today. Storied monuments from the city's Golden Age -- such as the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the temple of Athena Nike and the Odeon of Herod Atticus -- are must-sees, as are significant museums like the National Archeological Museum.
Corfu. The island of Corfu (Kerkyra in Greek) has everything one would expect of a great Greek holiday: a rich architectural tradition, a strong cultural presence and ample opportunity to sample moussaka and dolmades. Most visitors head first to Corfu Town, a walled city that's framed by two hillside fortresses, one dating back to the sixth century.
Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is a great walking city for lovers of culture and history, with centuries-old monasteries, churches, synagogues and even one of the oldest operating pharmacies in Europe. Medieval-era Old Town is a walled city that's free of traffic; you can even walk the 1.3-mile stretch of wall some 80 feet above ground level for spectacular views. It's dotted with Renaissance churches and fountains, as well as narrow, cobblestone streets where pedestrians stroll from shop to shop, dine and drink at alfresco cafes, and soak up the sun.
Haifa. Israel's third-largest city is the gateway to the rolling hills of Galilee and its associated biblical sights to the east, as well as Akko, directly across the sparkling bay, with its magnificent Crusader city. Other highlights in the region include Mount Hermon and Golan Heights (where Israel, Syria and Jordan connect). Some lines use this as the point of entry to Jerusalem.
Istanbul. The world's only city covering two continents, Istanbul is a place where East and West mingle, with monumental churches cum mosques (the Hagia Sophia), Roman ruins (the Hippodrome, where horse and chariot races were held in Roman times) and unadulterated symbols of consumerism (the Grand Bazaar with its thousands of shops). Most ships offer two-day visits.
Jerusalem (Ashdod). To visit Jerusalem, many ships call on Ashdod, more than an hour's drive from the city (although that's more convenient than Haifa, which is several hours away). Hectic, don't-waste-a-minute tours rush visitors to the Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and then on to Bethlehem or one of Israel's famous museums (the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial or Israel Museum, home to the Dead Sea Scrolls). Although it's a long day-trip, a visit to Masada and the Dead Sea is worth the time for repeat cruisers.
Kusadasi. At Ephesus, about nine miles from town, you'll travel back thousands of years to the best-preserved ancient city in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Virgin Mary is believed to have visited there between 37 and 45 A.D. The two-story library once contained thousands of scrolls, and the Terrace Houses display intricate mosaics and colorful frescoes. The Temple of Artemis, which Alexander the Great visited during its construction in 334 B.C., was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world; now the ruins are part of most excursions.
Mykonos. Windswept Mykonos is just more than 40 square miles of dry, rugged terrain dotted with chalky green bushes, granite stone, windmills and blinding white-washed buildings -- all bordered by beaches and backlit by an unflinchingly blue sky. The island boasts some 20 spots for sunbathing and swimming, several with a clothing optional emphasis in line with the island's reputation for an open, cosmopolitan atmosphere. If your ship stops overnight, Mykonos' nightlife is among the hottest in Europe.
Santorini. Site of one of the world's most violent volcanic eruptions around 1450 B.C., the island is inarguably the most scenically dramatic of all the Greek Islands. Expect pitch-black beaches, rugged landscapes and a stunning caldera (volcanic crater), along with whitewashed churches and charming clifftop houses.
Venice. Of all the cities in the world, only Paris comes remotely close to matching Venice in terms of sheer beauty and romance. Aside from a number of charming squares, such as the famous Piazza San Marco, Venice is mostly composed of a warren of narrow canals and streets spread over more than 100 islands. There are few better cities to simply get lost in, particularly if you want to escape the tourist hordes that clog the main arteries around San Marco and the Rialto Bridge.
Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Tips
Cover up. While some beaches in Greece and Turkey might be clothing-optional, Orthodox churches, synagogues and mosques usually enforce strict dress codes. Whether you're a man or woman, cover your shoulders, midriff and knees. Some tourist sites do offer shawls for bare-shouldered women, but it's better to bring your own -- and wear capris.
Read up. With so many old civilizations in one region, it's easy to get disoriented. A little bit of advance reading, be it fiction or nonfiction, could go a long way in terms of preparation. (If that sounds too arduous, there's always the movie "Troy.") Got kids? D'Aulaires' "Book of Greek Myths" is a must.
Drink up. The sun can be brutal in the Med during the heat of summer. Make sure you bring plenty of bottled water, and hydrate frequently.
Lace up. The terrain at ancient sites like Ephesus can be dusty and uneven. You'll want shoes with some traction; it's not the place for flimsy footwear.
Rest up. You could spend days exploring major cities like Istanbul, Venice and Jerusalem; even the smaller, ports such as Dubrovnik and Athens, are jam-packed with must-see monuments. If you're the type who wants to do it all, make sure you take it easy on sea days to recuperate.
--Updated by Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor